Peace funding should be targeted at common needs, not those perceived as ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’ - The Irish News view

EU PEACE programme cash shouldn’t be distributed on the basis of a ‘one for me, one for you carve up’

Money from the EU-funded Peace programme was used to fund the Peace Bridge in Derry which spans the River Foyle
Money from the EU-funded Peace programme was used to fund the Peace Bridge in Derry which spans the River Foyle and is regarded as a triumph, but other projects have been less successful

The European Union has played a positive role in Northern Ireland, from putting its weight behind the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement to resisting the worst excesses of the hard Brexit fantasy coveted by Boris Johnson and the DUP.

Throughout, it has put its money where its mouth is, with billions of pounds of funding earmarked for peace-building projects in the north and counties on both sides of the border.

The UK’s deeply regrettable decision to abandon the EU - notwithstanding the majority of northern voters wishing to remain - means the European peace funding will inevitably come to an end.

This has been managed by the Special EU Programmes Body and delivered under a series of schemes called PEACE.

The €1.14 billion PeacePlus programme, launched last September and due to run until 2027, is destined to be the last of these. Bankrolled by the UK government, the NI Executive, the Irish government and the EU, it’s an example of what can be achieved when the various governments and administrations work together; it’s also a further reminder of the vibrant connections and possibilities that are being lost because of the dead hand of Brexit.

However, it is important to acknowledge that the existence of funding is not enough. It needs to also be spent effectively.

Worryingly, academics who have investigated the EU programme have concluded that “rather than funding a lasting peace in NI, PEACE funding has sustained the status quo between the two traditional communities”.

This is the opposite of what should have happened. Eye-catching flagship projects such as the Peace Bridge in Derry are one thing, and can rightly be regarded as a triumph, but all too often it seems that the cash has been spent on providing facilities on a “one for me, one for you carve up”.

We should be well beyond the stage where as a society we are simply content with an absence of violent conflict being the limit of our aspirations for peace. As we are painfully aware, efforts to tackle sectarianism and build reconciliation remain frustratingly inadequate.

It is in addressing this “insidious community segregation” that the academics say the PEACE funding has missed the mark. To back up their argument they draw on data from Life and Times Surveys which shows that fewer people believe that relations will improve between Protestants and Catholics compared to a significant increase in those who think things will get worse.

Addressing common needs - and these are numerous, from educational under-achievement to poor health care - rather than thinking in terms of Catholic or Protestant needs, whatever that might mean, is surely key to building a more positive future for this entire community.